Two years ago on this very website, Dr. Patrick Wyman wrote about the single most important question facing the UFC: where is the next generation of stars? It’s been a rough search, but last weekend, I think we finally found a great candidate.
Dozens of elite fighters have risen up the ranks since 2017, and while a few of them have emerged as new champions in their weight classes, nobody besides Khabib Nurmagomedov has truly broken through. Henry Cejudo talks a lot and wins through brutal athleticism, but he doesn’t really cut a great promo. Nobody is buying Colby Covington’s troll act enough for him to be a worthwhile heel. I love Justin Gaethje as a pure vector of violence, but I don’t see the crossover appeal. Hand-picked would-be stars like Sage Northcutt and Paige Van Zant have turned out to be too mediocre at actual fighting. Only Nurmagomedov draws pay-per-view crowds on the level of Jon Jones or Conor McGregor, and one new superstar isn’t going to cut it once McGregor completely loses interest in fighting.
On Saturday at UFC 243, Israel Adesanya made a compelling case for why he could join that hallowed tier. The Nigerian-born Kiwi fighter stepped to middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and put on the performance of his career, knocking out Bobby Knuckles in the second round. Whittaker spent the first round bursting forward at Adesanya with his signature blitzes, and all he did was key in Adesanya on his timing. Adesanya is a brilliant defensive fighter (which we saw in his masterclass against Derek Brunson last year), and he sniped Whittaker with a flurry of perfectly placed hook counters. Adesanya dropped Whittaker at the very end of the first round, then put him out with an even prettier set of punches in the second.
Check one box for Adesanya. Fans love an athletic, creative striker, and Adesanya has racked up a perfect 18-0 MMA record and a 75-5 kickboxing record with one of the most complete striking arsenals in the game. He’s a thrill to watch fight every time out, and he’s shown the phenomenal takedown defense (against Brunson) and toughness (most notably against Kelvin Gastelum) necessary to excel in a tough division like middleweight. Whittaker was easily his stiffest test, and he dismantled the defending champion for his seventh win in just the 20 months he’s been in the UFC.
But you can’t become an MMA star on skill alone, and the UFC is probably thrilled that Adesanya beat Whittaker, since the defending champ was not exactly overflowing with charisma. Adesanya, on the other hand, is a born showman. He entered the octagon with an anime-themed walkout routine, then danced some more inside the cage while Whittaker was making his way to the center of the arena.
He explained after the fight that he forced the UFC to let him do his thing:
“I tried to do it at the Silva fight in February. And the UFC was like ‘No, we can’t have that.’ I was like oh, fuck you then. And then this fight, this is my show, I’m headlining this bitch. So I was like no, I’m going to do it my way or no way. Like, who else on this kind of stage, is going to do that before they go and whoop some ass.”
I also greatly enjoyed Adesanya answering a phone call from his cousin during the presser:
Adesanya’s first title defense will come against a fellow undefeated force, Brazilian destroyer Paulo Costa, a man who makes Popeye look waifish. Adesanya sold that matchup brilliantly, looking at him and calling out “this overly inflated balloon animal, this hating-ass Ricky Martin wannabe.”
At this point, Adesanya’s star potential is undeniable. He has Nigeria and New Zealand behind him, and the UFC will give him every opportunity to take over the sport. Let’s hope he beats Costa’s ass.